Nocturama, the provocative new film by Bertrand Bonello, opens with a handful of young Parisians performing wordless and labyrinthian maneuvers through the city’s Metro. They dump phones into wastebaskets, bear mysterious packages, and give each other silent, intimate looks. The time occasionally flashes on screen, suggesting pre-planned and coordinated maneuvers. Obviously, something is up. That something, we soon learn, is the planting of bombs. The little ones are terrorist.
Considering recent events, it’s a subject fraught with peril, open to labels of exploitation and tastelessness. Though Bonello is hardly an outlier in attempting to depict the terrorist’s viewpoint. Just the past few years have given us Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (novel and then movie); Z. in Jennifer Egan’s novel Look at Me; the mini-series Carlos by Olivier Assayas, another French director. And Nocturama, which premiered at Cannes in 2016, was filmed before the November attacks in Paris. It was never meant as a comment on or explanation of any single incident.
Although Nocturama would hardly be worth the time if it didn’t tantalize us with hints. Flashbacks reveal the characters’ pre-terrorist lives, how they met, some of the planning. Are they disaffected bourgeois? Psychopaths? True revolutionaries? Clues might also lie in the targets: a modern office building, parked cars, a bank executive, a statue of Joan d’Arc, a government ministry. Like all good art, Nocturama is open to interpretation. As a testament to Bonello’s skill, any speculations we pose serve to draw us into the story and actually make us care what happens to these people.
The violence, once it comes, is merely prelude. It occurs halfway through the film. After the bombs explode, the crew hides out in an upscale shopping mall to wait out the night — a riff on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Bonello, his beautiful ex-children awash in a similarly gorgeous sea of brand names, here offers another hint as to the cause of their murderous rampage. If all we have in common is a zombiefying consumer culture, what matters bombs?
But such a pat thesis is never the point. The film only skims the inner workings of his characters. They are creatures of almost pure instinct and action, as blank as the mannequins that surround them in the mall. They talk about plastic explosives in the same breath as deciding what nail polish to take off the shelves or the music they should play on the stereo display. The Breakfast Club by way of A Clockwork Orange. Even the film’s violence reflects their passionless stance. It is arid and dull, not the ballet of death so common in contemporary film. It’s the one thing in Nocturama that is not beautiful.
In simply showing events, Nocturama purposely quotes Elephant, Gus van Sant’s movie also about murderous youth. (An aside, Nocturama never showed in the US theaters. It went right from Cannes to Netflix; shame on Netflix for not streaming the other films mentioned here as companions.) Closely mirroring a real incident, Elephant like Nocturama leaves diagnosis to the viewer.
“It was bound to happen,” says a minor character two-thirds of the way into Nocturama, the only explanation ever offered. It’s interesting to note that Joseph Conrad dedicated The Secret Agent, a novel about the real-life bombing of London’s Greenwich Observatory, to H.G. Wells, futurist and writer of things to come. Such dire acts must carry the sense of inevitability and in that at least Nocturama offers what seems like a chilling truth.
Nocutrama. Directed by Bertrand Bonello. 130 minutes. Streaming on Netflix.